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By Cosette Drook
“Frankly, I just don’t like to sweat.”
As a first time student health coach, this comment from a participant in my physical activity session would have caused me to break out in a sweat. And while perhaps I then would have been able to sympathize, I also would have felt stumped. There’s nothing I can do about sweat glands. What happened to the barriers like time and injury that I had prepared for? I’m only a sophomore in college- what could I possibly suggest to fix sweat?
But as a second time student health coach, I laughed. I told them, “Me too!” I asked if others in the group felt the same. They laughed. And then we had a productive conversation discussing strategies to fit exercise into more convenient times of the day, like working out right before morning showers or packing gym clothes for after work.
During the last two spring semesters, I have led supplemental physical activity group coaching sessions through Healthy Emory’s Diabetes Prevention Program as part of my enrollment in HLTH 497 – Community Health Education Strategies in the Center for the Study of Human Health. The overall content of my session didn’t change much this year, but my approach and comfort with coaching most certainly did. I came into my second year of sessions more confident with less focus on having perfect answers and more focus on participants’ personal stories and experiences.
When I sat down to write this blog post last year, I reflected on the importance of broadening the definition of health. As a Human Health major, I spend most of my class time amongst health-conscious young people. When I practiced my sessions with my peers, the biggest barrier to physical activity was time, so I was somewhat blindsided when a participant last year informed me they were retired and had all the time in the world. For most people, health doesn’t look like the textbook version touted in Human Health courses. But that was the framework I used to develop my session.
With those reflections in mind, I began planning my sessions this year by reevaluating my role as a health coach. During my first experience in the class, a recurring question brought up among my classmates was, “Why should ‘real’ adults be taking health advice from college students?” But in that fear was my first mistake: assuming it was my job to give health advice. Being a student health coach in HLTH 497 does not make me qualified to give health advice. But the listening and coaching skills I learned through the class do make me qualified to facilitate conversations that help people better strategize their own health.
Having reevaluated my role, I took ownership of being a discussion facilitator. Instead of preparing a bulleted list of solutions to physical activity barriers, I drafted a rough list of “why/how/what” questions, but used them as a starting point, not a session blueprint. I spent less of my session talking and more of my session honing in on details participants shared and encouraging them to share their own strategies with each other. I didn’t try to craft each participant a personalized plan, instead I provided questions and a handout to do that for themselves and left discussion time to troubleshoot.
Perhaps this should be obvious, but the most effective everyday health plan is the one that works best for you. But this was not always so obvious to me. My participants came away from my sessions with so much more when I took a step back and gave them the space to dive into what was important to them, not what I thought should be important. The discussions were also a lot more fun when I embraced the “unexpected” instead of trying to reign the conversation back in for prescriptive advice.
At its core, the health coach role is one of a health educator. Health education can also mean health empowerment. No, I can’t empower sweat glands to stop working. But I can empower participants to share their personal experiences and strategies that best suit their goals and needs. And I might just learn some ideas along the way because frankly, I don’t like to sweat, too.